MADISON – The drops brought audible groans throughout Camp Randall Stadium.
After a slow start last week saw Wisconsin trail 3-0 at Purdue before a 35-point second quarter put them on the right track, the Badgers saw their two most experience receivers – senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy – make critical drops on third down that stunted drives and created another sluggish start out of the gates for Wisconsin’s offense.
But as the game pressed on, both found redemption in critical ways that played a factor in No.5 Wisconsin’s come-from-behind 31-17 victory over Minnesota.
Wheelwright drop came on Wisconsin’s first series after the Badgers drove to the Minnesota 32, a pass that hit him in the hands at the Minnesota 20 and forced a punt. The game was scoreless at that point, but Peavy’s drop came with Wisconsin trailing 10-7. Coming across the formation in the slot, Peavy was wide open at the UW 46 when a Bart Houston pass hit him in the hands and fell to the turf on third-and-14.
UW had to punt again, but Minnesota took advantage of good field position to extend the lead to 17-7 at halftime.
“I was definitely frustrated at the time,” Peavy said. “It’s one of those things where we needed to get things going. That was definitely an easy opportunity for me to make a catch, convert on a drive and keep things going, and I didn’t. I got on myself a little bit.”
After regrouping at halftime, along with the rest of the team, both delivered a critical play to set up a touchdown for one of their teammates.
After cornerback Sojourn Shelton’s 40-yard interception return, Wheelwright caught a 16-yard pass over the middle at the Minnesota 2, holding on despite being sandwiched between two defenders. Tailback Corey Clement scored one play later.
Two drives later, it was Peavy's turn, taking a jet sweep 71 yards down the right sideline. That set up the offense at the Minnesota 5, and the Badgers took the lead for good two plays later on another Clement 2-yard touchdown at the midpoint of the fourth quarter.
“When the end around came in, it’s just like, I’ve got to do this for them,” Peavy said. “They expect this from me. They know I can. When the opportunity presented itself, I just made it happen.”
The Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) finished with less than 200 yards passing for the fifth consecutive game but head to the Big Ten championship game on a six game winning streak.
“You’ve got to keep playing and preserving,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “it doesn’t always go the way you’d like it to go, and yet that’s part of the game is to keep playing … Some guys that miss an opportunity here or miss a tackle, we’ve just got to keep playing… So when it does come and they are able to make a play, a significant play, then you feel really good for them.
Sagapolu Impactful in Return
Out since fracturing a small bone in his right hand into three pieces during the overtime loss to Ohio State, sophomore nose tackle Olive Sagapolu watched the previous five games as UW’s jumbled defensive line still was shutting down opponents.
But with so many things on the line, Sagapolu wasn’t going to miss this one.
“Honestly I just thought I could come in helping whatever way I can,” Sagapolu said. “Whether it’s eating two (blockers) or making big plays and fortunately we got there.”
The sophomore was ruled out for the game Monday but returned to practice Tuesday and was upgraded to questionable Friday. He wore a club over the cast that’s still on his hand and thumb, but Sagapolu said he doesn’t feel restricted by what he can do physically.
That was evident when he record his first collegiate sack early in the third quarter, bursting through the line to take down Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner for a six-yard loss on second down.
“Words can’t describe how excited I was at the moment,” Sagapolu said. “It was a good momentum changer in a way.”
The added depth was critical for Wisconsin. Not only did Sagapolu return to the rotation, but defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield rotated in Garrett Rand, Billy Hirschfeld and even former defensive-end-turned-tight-end Zander Neville to help keep guys fresh.
“It was good to have him back and neat for him,” Chryst said of Sagapolu. “He’s missed a lot of football and so for him to come back and be a part of this, it was good. When you get a guy back, it gives you some energy, and it also gave us some production.”
From the Infirmary
Chryst did not have an update on redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, who left the game with an undisclosed injury with 3:19 remaining in the first half. Hornibrook scrambled toward the Minnesota the sideline and was hit hard by linebacker Jack Lynn and stayed down for several minutes before walking off under his own power.
In addition to Hornibrook, T.J. Edwards, Leo Musso, D’Cota Dixon and Wheelwright were all shaken up during the course of the game and had to leave the field. Unlike Hornibrook, all returned a short time later.
Fullback Austin Ramesh returned after missing the last three game with a right shoulder injury and had one carry for three yards.
Brookins Honored with Seniors
Redshirt junior safety Keelon Brookins was honored before Saturday’s game against Minnesota along with UW’s 12 seniors.
Dealing with knee injuries during the latter part of high school and early in college, Brookins has played in nine games this season and 27 in his career, mostly on special teams. He came to Madison as a defensive back but was moved to linebacker and eventually returned to his natural position of safety before spring practice this year.
A UW spokesman said Brookins would be graduating this December.
Extra Points: The all-time series between Wisconsin and Minnesota is now tied at 59-59-8, the first deadlock since it was 6-6 in 1901. The Badgers have never led in the series … Wisconsin four inteceptions Saturday give them 11 over the last three games and 21 on the season, the school’s most since 2002 (22) … At 10-2, Wisconsin has its sith 10-win season in the last eight years. UW had five 10-win seasons in the program’s first 119 years.